The Grand Tour returned this past Friday with the fourth special of its fourth season, entitled “Carnage a Trois.” The French-themed episode follows “Lochdown” of August 2021, “A Massive Hunt” from December last year, and “Seamen” from December 2019. “Seamen” was the first installment of The Grand Tour’s new format where the tent, audience, track, and stupid time-wasting went by the wayside in favor of a specials-only format with grand adventures and less choppy segmented content. How does “Carnage a Trois” fare in that mold? Pas bon.
Before you read any further, be advised this article contains spoilers of the episode. You’ve been warned!
Like “Lochdown,” the French installment of The Grand Tour starts with a simple question the trio of presenters intend to answer over the next hour and five-ish minutes. This time the inquiry is “What is the matter with the French?” Cue the mimes and baguettes, because you’re in for a lot of very stereotypical jokes about France and French people, none of which will be new or funny to you if you’re over the age of 15. Viewers see some shots of James and Richard pretending to build a catapult for no reason in particular, and Clarkson talks about unusual French laws that have nothing to do with cars.
The car portion of the light entertainment hour starts out promising enough, as the presenters show up with the voitures they’ve purchased. Clarkson selects a Citroën CX Safari (wagon), just like he did on the old Top Gear episode (S15, E4) where he turned one into a motorhome. Hammond goes sporty and selects the three-seater Matra Murena, useful for the French man who has a wife and a mistress. May goes for a Renault Avantime that’s the exact same color as the one Top Gear turned into a track car (S12, E3). With three interesting French cars selected, the hosts proceed to give zero detail about the age, mileage, price, or condition of their vehicles. The trio doesn’t look or comment on one another’s choices at all, in fact. It all feels very rushed.
We head straight into the second segment, a brief history of a handful of French automobiles highlighting quirky and backward designs. Interesting here is something called the Helicar, a 1930s-looking design driven by a front-mounted propeller. Hammond drives it, as the other two presenters move on to quirky Renaults and the 2CV. A 2CV is destroyed by being dropped from a helicopter, because that’s a thing to do. At around the 15-minute mark, hopes are high for more interesting information on French cars. The Helicar was very obscure and very interesting.
But instead, it’s on to more stereotypes about how the French have a general disregard for their cars’ intended use, cargo capacity, how to park, how to be practical, and how to drive. It’s a terrible segment that’s light on entertainment, high on senseless car damage, and that’s it.
“Looking after a car is disgusting [in France],” declares Clarkson. Ready for some offensive pretend French accents?
Moving on, there’s an off-road challenge: Three French family cars asked to go much further off the pavement than they were designed to. Clarkson has a very charming Citroën Berlingo, Hammond is in the Renault Scenic he banged up in the prior segment, and May’s driving the same Peugeot 407 he just broke by slamming a dishwasher into the trunk. French people don’t wash their cars by the way, but they did invent rallying. The off-roading segment sees all three cars entirely destroyed, flipped over intentionally or similar, and goes on a while.
At the 28-minute mark, the hosts return to the French cars they purchased and highlight interesting and quirky features. It would’ve been better to hear the rationales and interesting nature of the cars at first sight, but we’re stretching our material as thin as possible this episode. After a brief driving segment of under two minutes, it’s back to the discussion of French laws (this time with regard to driving, at least). French people don’t use roundabouts properly, by the way. There’s a convenient British man standing at the roundabout in Paris who happens to be there as Hammond blocks traffic and shouts obscenities at him. French people like baguettes and eat large sandwiches, you know.
The team heads to the familiar Millbrook Proving Ground and its Belgian pavers to show how the old CX is much softer in its suspension setup than a newer BMW 5-Series wagon. Said 5-Series is destroyed because it’s too rough to defuse a bomb in the cargo area, or whatever. French people don’t like government intervention, and they eat a lot of cheese.
Next up is a pretend rally race of some hot French hatchbacks. Cars are decorated in the Top Gear tradition with fake sponsored liveries. When doors are open the sponsors say Arse Biscuits or Le Balls, and other mature humor for adult people. All the hosts choose a hatchback but it doesn’t really matter which, because the race immediately ends for a lunch break of snails and wine. At 47 minutes in, one begins to wonder if this episode will make any points at all. The race continues after lunch but is stopped again because of a workers’ strike at the track. Fun! Eight minutes later the race is over, and the Citroën Saxo won it, driven by a “French employee” from the office.
The tone changes for the penultimate segment of the show, as Clarkson and Hammond explore the elegance and excellence of the Citroën SM. The segment is beautifully filmed and scored, and our hosts convey actual information about an interesting car. They declare the SM the best French car of all time. It might break down a lot, but it’s so stunning to look at it doesn’t matter.
The conclusion is a quick one and comes suddenly. Despite all the automotive quirks and cultural characteristics, there’s not a lot wrong with the French. That might’ve been a nice place to end, but there are nine more minutes to fill. Time to destroy a Citroën C3 Pluriel because it has an annoying roof arrangement. Enter catapult and the White Cliffs of Dover. The C3 is catapulted over the English Channel and lands on a house in France. What of the host’s three cars? No idea, they’re not shown again.
“Carnage a Trois” is not quite as bad as “A Massive Hunt,” but it comes close. For a special episode of a show that releases only a handful of episodes a year, there wasn’t much to recommend it. It was sort of like the history of Peugeot segment from Top Gear (S22, E5). But where that piece went on for eight minutes, this had nine times longer to fill. Without an adventure to go on, it was more like a Grand Tour episode from prior seasons. One loose narrative with different clips here and there. Beautifully filmed, as always.
But that segmentation format was what the show was supposed to leave behind. In exchange for dropping from 12 or 14 episodes a year to two, adventure and film-like content was promised. That didn’t happen here. And I’m not ignoring the masked COVID elephant in the room: Old Top Gear made plenty of great episodes (also an hour-long) within the confines of Great Britain. The majority of this special was incredibly boring.
Sort of leaves me thinking the trio is struggling for content. If there’s no adventure left and the rarely-released specials consist of strung-together segments, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel. For their part, the hosts have proclaimed it’s a new type of special. May said, “It’s the first time we’ve done a special like that ever, not going from one place to another place: We’re simply driving around in order to investigate the subject. We might have stumbled across a fantastic original idea without us realising it!”
So they made a special that’s an all-original new idea for a special because it’s in the format of how their show (and Top Gear before it) used to be. Brilliant.
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